Discovering Instructional Design Part 1: Foundations

At its heart, learning is about growth. The single, central reason for learning, training, and education is to facilitate peoples’ need to acquire and develop new skills, knowledge and expertise. The E-Learning Curve Blog focuses on learning through the design, development, and deployment of educational technologies. In the past I’ve been known to discuss approaches to learning, cognition and constructivism at great length. For one reason or another, I’ve never really discussed the bridge between the theoretical and the practical aspects of education – the twin pillars, if you like. Over the next few weeks I’m going to spend some time discussing this domain in a series of articles on instructional design (ID) methods and approaches.

To understand this discipline and how it can be applied for learners’ optimal benefit, it’s essential to understand the underlying theoretical perspectives that inform ID. Dale Schunk (1991) lists five definitive questions that serve to distinguish each learning theory from the others:

  1. How does learning occur?
  2. Which factors influence learning?
  3. What is the role of memory?
  4. How does transfer occur? and
  5. What types of learning are best explained by the theory?

Ertmer & Newby (1993) “expand” (p.46) this list by adding two additional questions important to the instructional designer:

6. What basic assumptions/principles of this theory are relevant to instructional design? and
7. How should instruction be structured to facilitate learning?

Each of these questions can be answered from distinct viewpoints: Behaviorism, Cognitivism, and Constructivism. While learning theories are traditionally distributed across the Behaviorist and Cognitivist categories, Constructivism has a place of prominence in instructional design literature, and is also worth exploring here.

Introducing Instructional Design

Instructional Design (ID) is the practice of maximizing the effectiveness, efficiency and accessibility of instruction and other learning experiences. The ID process can be said to have a number of steps:

  1. Determine the current state and needs of the learner
  2. Define the end goal of instruction
  3. Develop a learning intervention to assist in the acquisition of new skills, knowledge or expertise

Before we dive in to ID with much gusto, I want to begin by briefly outlining the theoretical approaches to pretty much all contemporary instructional design methods.

1. Behaviorism

Based on observed changes in behavior, Behaviorism focuses on a new behavioral patterns being repeated until they becomes automatic. The theory emerged from work done by Ivan Pavlov in associative learning and classical conditioning. The theory of behaviorism concentrates on the study of overt behaviors that can be observed and measured (Good & Brophy, 1990). It views the mind as a “black box” in the sense that the response to a stimulus can be observed quantitatively, while totally ignoring the possibility of thought processes occurring in the mind.

In his 1953 text Science and Human Behavior B. F. Skinner developed the concept of Operant Conditioning, and promoted its application in education and training through the use of  positive and negative reinforcement techniques. A behaviorist approach to learning was first implemented in educational technology in the 1960s.

Main characteristics:

  • Behavioral objectives (performance, condition, standard)
  • Programmed instruction
  • Individualized instruction
  • Computer assisted instruction
  • Systems approach

2. Cognitivism

Based on thought processes governing behavior, the theory of Cognitivism emerged from the inability of the Behaviorist Model to explain how children do not imitate all behavior. Similarly, the  Behaviorist Model could not account for certain types of learning. Bandura and Walters’ 1963 text Social Learning and Personality Development led to Social Cognitive Theory, a concept further developed by Jean Piaget.

Main characteristics:

  • schema
  • 3-Stage Information Processing Model
    • sensory register
    • short term memory
    • long term memory

According to Cognitivists, tasks are broken down (‘chunked’) and progress from simple to complex, based on previously-learned mental models, or schema. Cognitivism’s influence in education began in the 1970s. Its adoption led to a shift from measuring external behavior to focusing on the internal mental processes behind behavior, leading to a greater emphasis on task- and learner analysis. Cognitivism is still the principal theory used in contemporary instructional design approaches and methods.

3. Constructivism

Based on individual perspectives addressing the demands of the real world, Constructivist theory emerged from work undertaken by Frederic Bartlett in the 1930s. M. David Merrill and David H. Jonassen further developed the theory in the 1990s to postulate that our reality is perceived through a process of social negotiation. Constructivist approaches to instructional design first appeared in the 1980s and 90s. Its adoption led to a shift from an objectively- to subjectively-focused learning, and the development of more open-ended tasks where the results of learning are not so easily measured, and are not the same for each learner. Constructivism is not compatible with simple Systems approach to ID, and outcomes of learning are not predetermined.

Main characteristics:

  • Use of realia (real-world objects)
  • Authentic tasks – task-based learning
  • Reflective practice – learning to learn
  • Use of hypertext and hypermedia – branched learning rather than a linear learning path

Next: Aligning Learning Theory with Instructional Design



Bandura, A., & Walters, R. H. (1963). Social learning and personality development. New York: Holt

Bartlett, F.C. (1932). Remembering: A Study in Experimental and Social Psychology. Cambridge University Press

Ertmer, P. A., Newby, T. J. (1993). Behaviorism, cognitivism, constructivism: Comparing critical features from an instructional design perspective. Performance Improvement Quarterly, 6 (4), 50-70.

Good, T. L., Brophy, J. E. (1990). Educational psychology: A realistic approach (4th ed.).White Plains, NY: Longman

Jonassen, D. H. (1991). Objectivism versus constructivism: do we need a new philosophical paradigm? Educational Technology Research and Development, 39 (3), 5-14.

Merrill, M. D. (1991). Constructivism and instructional design. Educational Technology, May, 45-53.

Schunk, D. H. (1991). Learning theories: An educational perspective. New York: Macmillan.

Skinner, B.F. (1953). Science and Human Behavior. New York: Macmillan.